Interview with vocalist/guitarist Page Hamilton | By Brandon Ringo
For 25 years now, Helmet mastermind Page Hamilton has been assaulting the masses one riff at a time. After releasing their major label debut Meantime in 1992, the band reached unfathomable heights of success and popularity, partly due to the success of the single “Unsung”. Two years later, the band changed the game again by releasing Betty, a complete 180 in terms of style and creativity and a record that still stands as one of the greatest alternative rock album’s of the 90’s. Now 20 years after the album’s release, the band has been celebrating Betty’s anniversary by playing the entire album live on select dates in the US and in October they’ll be playing the album live all through Europe and the UK. In the meantime (seewhatididthere), the band is on tour with Filter and Local H as part of the “Anti-Folk Revival Tour in Drop-D”. In this chat with Hamilton, we discuss the making of Betty, what makes the album so difficult to do live, as well as the status of their new record.
How’d the idea come about to do the tour with Filter and how’s it going so far?
Well, we met on the Shiprocked cruise, we all went to the Bahamas and Key West last January and we hit it off and they know our music and we know their music, it just made sense. They approached us earlier and said they were going to do something with Fuel and then that fell apart and they came back to us and I said all along that I’d love to do it. I figured the bands would get along and it’d be a good bill and it is. I think our fans share musical tastes and it’s good. Though we’re quite different -Helmet’s fairly aggressive and raw and Filter has more of a programmed element in their music, that’s sort of -not to make comparisons, but it’s kinda that Nine Inch Nails thing. I know Richard played in Nine Inch Nails and has that technology ability. I think it’s kinda cool, because some people that might not be aware of us are getting turned on to our music, so it’s good for us.
What’s the set list for you been like so far? I know you guys are doing Betty on some dates this year.
There’s a misconception. I’ve discovered that some of these shows are being advertised as Betty shows and they’re not. Like, we’re gonna do Betty tomorrow because I did an interview with a guy and he did the whole interview kinda based around that and I asked my manager “Are these Betty shows?” And he said “No, absolutely not.” I gotta nip that in the bud. The Betty tour -we did a show in LA, we have a show in Chicago, we have some East coast dates in December after we get back from Europe and the whole Europe tour is a Betty tour, this is the 20th anniversary of the album, but it’s weird, I’m not sure how word is getting spread that this is the Betty tour. We love doing the record, but what I’ve been trying to do, is sound check every day and add a song that we haven’t done for a while. Since we’ve had six months off and we did the tour with The Melvins in Australia and then we did New Zealand. So we’ve had a lot of time off, so some of these live tunes get a little rusty. So there’ll be a cross-section of material. We really love the Seeing Eye Dog album, so we do the bulk of that and we do a lot of stuff off of Aftertaste, Betty and Meantime, all of the albums. We have no shortage of material. Some people have complained that we haven’t done “Unsung”, but we did the Meantime tour in 2012 all over the world, so we like to do a lot of other stuff too.
With this year being the 20th anniversary of Betty and you guys doing the European tour and the Hollywood show a few weeks ago, has it been kind of weird to kind of get back in that headspace you were in when they were created 20 years ago writing that album?
It’s…weird might be a good description, yeah. It’s a super challenge, because some of the songs this lineup had never played and some of the songs had never been played period live like “Sam Hell”. It’s tricky, because there are a lot of texture changes and what we do is, rather than play all the different tunings that exist on the various albums like drop D or drop C or C sharp. There’s a song tuned to A, there’s one song with the B string tuned up a minor third, there’s just a lot of weird tunings. We try to keep it streamlined so we can bash through the songs, ya know? The Betty album presents a challenge because there are a lot of dynamic and textural things that we normally wouldn’t do. There’s a little jazz guitar tune on there. There’s an intro to a free improv noise fest, there’s a funk tune that Henry (Bogdan, bass) and I wrote. There’s the song “Biscuits For Smut” tuned down to A that’s really weird. It’s a real challenge, but I’m really enjoying it. Interestingly, I focused on the songs that we haven’t done and screwed up songs that we have done [Laughs]. Like I screwed up “Vaccination” the other night, it’s one of the hardest songs ever to play. I don’t even know, the time signatures are so weird and the turnarounds are in such weird places and I couldn’t hear at all. It’s been fun, it’s been good. I like there to be some danger in the set; Icy roads ahead or whatever.
When you wrote Betty, after all the craziness you guys experienced with Meantime blowing up, what was your mindset like? Were you trying to outdo Meantime or do something completely different or what?
You know, I’ve always had this shoot myself in the foot mindset, I don’t know why. Once Meantime was so successful -or underground successful, a gold record is usually successful for an underground New York City band. After the Grammy nomination and all this exposure, my first inclination was to kinda say “Fuck you”. I dunno, that’s why I felt it would be fun to experiment. On the other hand, once you make a Meantime, you don’t need to make it again. I know a lot of bands have a different philosophy. I played a thing on the new Linkin Park record and Mike Shinoda said “We made our first record and it was so successful that we just made our first record again.” And that was their approach, maybe influenced by the label, producer, etc. And then they’ve since expanded what they do and I feel the need to expand what I do from record to record. That means I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, I’m not going to turn into an acoustic guitar band, but I’m not gonna make the same record again. So with Betty, the band had been together for another two years and toured extensively at that point and we felt we could expand our songwriting. I felt like that and I felt the band was with me on that. It was fun and I really like the album. I’m glad that it’s stood the test of time and a lot of people at the time that were disappointed because it didn’t sell in the US as much as Meantime -now I find out that people hold that album in higher esteem. [There are] super Helmet fans that get my kind of attitude or personality and love that there’s some weird shit on there. And they’re fun as fuck to play, I’m telling ya, man. We’ve been playing “Silver Hawaiian” every night; it’s such a cool tune.
Some of the songs on there, like “Sam Hell”, it’s such a weird ass song. When you recorded it, did you ever think you’d be playing that song live at any point?
Yeah. We always approached things like a live band; everything in Helmet is recorded like that. We go in and do bass drums and my guitar together. John (Stanier, drums), Henry and I never recorded separately. We always recorded with the three of us in the room at the same time live. Until we got a take we liked, there was no editing. It was all done to tape, so there was no click track or editing until I decided after we recorded “Like I Care”, I heard this one chord change that I had to put in there in the second chorus, so we went in and we tried to get the tempo right and we just recorded that one chord change. We spliced it in on tape like Pink Floyd style. So it was super non-technical, like as far as Pro-Tools weren’t available. We approach everything like that, like we’re gonna have to play it live. So, what I did was, I knew I had to get some vocal effects that I could control from stage, so I bought one of those harmonica mics, those Green Bullets that blues harp players use. And I’m singing in that for “Biscuits For Smut”, “Sam Hell”, the chorus in “Rollo”, the first verse in “Milquetoast”, all those songs that have thinned-out, weird, distorted vocals, that was the sound. So it’s a little tricky live for me, because I’m not used to having a second mic up there, but it sounds so bad ass! I’m just really into it, it’s really fun.
I assume that you’re working on a new record, is that correct?
Yeah. I have some new songs written already. I just finished a movie score, and also in the last six months simultaneously I’ve been mixing my movie soundtrack stuff from the first three movies I did for these people and we’re just trying to set a release date now. It’s just called Page Hamilton Movie Music Volume 1. That’s gonna come out sometime this year. And then we’re gonna record a couple of songs before we go to Europe to get our feet wet again and get going, because it’s been too long. Like I said, I’ve scored these four movies since we did the last album and I’ve kept busy at that, but I’m really, really jonesing for new Helmet songs. I’m so happy with Seeing Eye Dog that I wanna do another record with this lineup and everybody’s stoked. So, we’ll probably, realistically, get in and record the rest of it in January and then figure like a spring release next year.
Check out Helmet’s tour dates here: http://www.helmetmusic.com/tour/